Bush’s Forest Fire Plan

George W. Bush, fresh off a brush clearing operation at his Crawford ranch, snubbed the Earth Summit in Johannesburg for a trip to Oregon, where he vowed to fight future forest fires by taking a chainsaw to the nation’s forests and the environmental laws that protect them.

In the name of fire prevention, Bush wants to okay the timber industry to log off more than 2.5 million acres of federal forest over the next ten years. He wants it done quickly and without any interference from pesky statutes such as the Endangered Species Act. Bush called his plan “the Healthy Forests Initiative”. But it’s nothing more than a giveaway to big timber, that comes at a high price to the taxpayer and forest ecosystems.

Bush’s stump speech was a craven bit of political opportunism, rivaled, perhaps, only by his call to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling as a way to help heal the nation after the attacks of September 11. That plan sputtered around for awhile, but didn’t go anywhere in the end. But count on it: this one will.

Bush is exploiting a primal fear of fire that almost overwhelms the national anxiety about terrorists. In one of the great masterstrokes of PR, Americans have been conditioned for the past 60 years that forest fires are bad…bad for forests. It’s no accident that Smokey the Bear is the most popular icon in the history of advertising, far outdistancing Tony the Tiger or Capt. Crunch.

But the forests of North America were born out of fires, not destroyed by them. After Native Americans settled across the continent following the Wisconsin glaciation, fires became an even more regular event, reshaping the ecology of the Ponderosa pine and spruce forests of the Interior West and the mighty Douglas-fir forests of the Pacific Coast.

Forest fires became stigmatized only when forests began to be viewed as a commercial resource rather than an obstacle to settlement. Fire suppression became an obsession only after the big timber giants laid claim to the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest. Companies like Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific were loath to see their holdings go up in flames, so they arm-twisted Congress into pour millions of dollars into Forest Service fire-fighting programs. The Forest Service was only too happy to oblige because fire suppression was a sure way to pad their budget: along with the lobbying might of the timber companies they could literally scare Congress into handing over a blank check. [For an excellent history of the political economy of forest fires I highly recommend Stephen Pyne’s Fire in America.]

In effect, the Forest Service’s fire suppression programs (and similar operations by state and local governments) have acted as little more than federally-funded fire insurance policies for the big timber companies, an ongoing corporate bailout that has totaled tens of billions of dollars and shows no sign of slowing down. There’s an old saying that the Forest Service fights fires by throwing money at them. And the more money it spends, the more money it gets from Congress.

“The Forest Service budgetary process rewards forest managers for losing money on environmentally destructive timber sales and penalizes them for making money or doing environmentally beneficial activities,” says Randal O’Toole, a forest economist at the Thoreau Institute in Bandon, Oregon. “Until those incentives are changed, giving the Forest Service more power to sell or thin trees without environmental oversight will only create more problems than it solves.”

Where did all the money go? It largely went to amass a fire-fighting infrastructure that rivals the National Guard: helicopters, tankers, satellites, airplanes and a legion of young men and women who are thrust, often carelessly, onto the firelines. Hundreds of fire fighters have perished, often senselessly. For a chilling historical account of how inept Forest Service fire bureaucrats put young firefighters in harms way read Norman Maclean’s (author of A River Runs Through It) last book, Young Men and Fire. In this book, Maclean describes how incompetence and hubris by bureaucrats led to the deaths of 13 firefighters outside Seeley Lake, Montana in the great fire of 1949. More recently, mismanagement has led to firefighters being needlessly killed in Washington and Colorado.

Since the 1920s, the Forest Service fire-fighting establishment has been under orders to attack forest fires within 12 hours of the time when the fires were first sighted. For decades, there’s been a zero tolerance policy toward wildfires. Even now, after forest ecologists have proved that most forests not only tolerate but need fire, the agency tries to suppress 99.7 percent of all wildfires. This industry-driven approach has come at a terrible economic and ecological price.

With regular fires largely excluded from the forests and grasslands, thickets of dry timber, small sickly trees and brush began to build up. This is called fuel loading. These thickets began a breeding ground for insects and diseases that ravaged healthy forest stands. The regular, low-intensity fires that have swept through the forests for millennia have now been replaced by catastrophic blazes that roar with a fury that is without historical or ecological precedent.

Even so the solution to the fuels problem is burning, not logging. The Bush plan is the environmental equivalent of looting a bombed out city and raping the survivors. The last thing a burned over forest needs is an assault by chainsaws, logging roads and skid trails, to haul out the only living trees in a scorched landscape. The evidence has been in for decades. The proof can be found at Mt. St. Helens and Yellowstone Park: Unlogged burned forests recover quickly, feeding off the nutrients left behind dead trees and shrubs. On the other hand, logged over burned forests rarely recover, but persist as biological deserts, prone to mudslides, difficult to revegetate and abandoned by salmon and deep forest birds, such as the spotted owl, goshawk and marbled murrelet. They exist as desolate islands inside the greater ecosystem.

Even worse, such a plan only encourages future arsonists. The easiest way to clearcut an ancient forest is to set fire to it first. Take a look at the major fire of the west this summer: the big blazes in Arizona and Colorado were set by Forest Service employees and seasonal fire-fighters, another big fire in California was started by a marijuana suppression operation, fires in Oregon, Washington and Montana have been started by humans.

In Oregon more than 45,000 acres of prime ancient forest in the Siskiyou Mountains were torched by the Forest Service’s firefighting crews to start a backfire in order to “save” a town that wasn’t threatened to begin with. The fires were ignited by shooting ping-pong balls filled with napalm into the forest of giant Douglas-firs. By one estimate, more than a third of the acres burned this summer were ignited by the Forest Service as backfires. That’s good news for the timber industry since they get to log nearly all those acres for next to nothing.

Far from acting as a curative, a century of unrestrained logging has vastly increased the intensity and frequency of wildfires, particularly in the West. The Bush plan promises only more of the same at an accelerated and uninhibited pace. When combined with global warming, persistent droughts, and invasions by alien insects species (such as the Asian-long-horned beetle) and diseases, the future for American forests looks very bleak indeed.

Predictably, the Bush scheme was met with howls of protest from the big environmental groups. This is part of Bush’s irresponsible anti-environmental Agenda,” said Bill Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society. “The truth is that waiving environmental laws will not protect homes and lives from wildfire.”

But they only have themselves to blame. They helped lay the political groundwork for the Bush plan long ago. And now the Administration, and its backers in Big Timber, have seized the day and put the environmentalists on the run.

The environmentalists have connived with the logging-to-prevent-fires scam for political reasons. First came a deal to jettison a federal court injunction against logging in the Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest designed to appease Senator Max Baucus, friend of Robert Redford and a ranking Democrat. Then last month came a similar deal brokered by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that allows the timber industry to begin logging the Black Hills, sacred land of the Sioux, totally unfettered by any environmental constraints.

Grassroots greens warned that such dealmaking with Democrats would soon become a model for a national legislation backed by Bush and Republican legislators that would dramatically escalate logging on all national forests and exempt the clearcuts from compliance with environmental laws. We’ve now reached that point.

And there’s no sign the big greens have learned their lesson.

The latest proposal comes courtesy of the Oregon Natural Resources Council and the Sierra Club. It’s rather timidly called the “Environmentalist New Vision”.There’s nothing new about the plan, except that it is being endorsed by a claque of politically intimidated green groups instead of Boise-Cascade. It calls for thinning ( i.e., logging) operations near homes in the forest/suburb interface. This is a pathetic and dangerous approach that sends two wrong messages in one package: that thinning reduces fire risk and that it’s okay to build houses in forested environments.

In fact, there’s no evidence that thinning will reduce fires in these situations and it may provide a false sense of security when there are other measures that are more effective and less damaging to the environment.

“Forest Service fire researcher Jack Cohen has found that homes and other structures will be safe from fire if their roof and landscaping within 150 feet of the structures are fireproofed,” says O’Toole. “A Forest Service report says there are 1.9 million high-risk acres in the wildland-urban interface, of which 1.5 million are private. Treating these acres, not the 210 million federal acres, will protect homes. Firebreaks along federal land boundaries, not treatments of lands within those boundaries, will protect other private property. Once private lands are protected, the Forest Service can let most fires on federal lands burn.”

As it stands, the Sierra Club’s scheme will only result in more logging, more subdivisions in wildlands and, predictably, more fires. Any environmental outfit with a conscience would call for an immediate thinning of subdivisions on urban/wildland interface, not forests. Don’t hold your breath. Too many big-time contributors to environmental groups own huge houses inside burn-prone forests in places Black Butte Ranch, Oregon, Flagstaff, Arizona and Vail, Colorado.

Of course, there’s still resistance to these schemes. When Bush arrived in Portland to make official his handout to big timber, he was greeted by nearly a thousand protesters. On the streets of the Rose City, Earth First!ers and anti-war activists shouted down Bush and his plans for war on Iraq and the environment. The riot police soon arrived in their Darth Vader gear. The demonstrators, old and young alike, were beaten, gassed, and shot at with plastic bullets. They even pepper sprayed children. Dozens were arrested; others were bloodied by bullets and nightsticks.

This is a portent of things to come. When the laws have been suspended, the only option to protect forests will be direct action: bodies barricaded against bulldozers, young women suspended in trees, impromptu encampments in the deep snows of the Cascades and Rockies.

Not long ago, the occupation of cutting down the big trees ranked as one of the most dangerous around. Now, thanks to the connivance of Bush, Daschle and the big enviro groups, the job of protecting them will be fraught with even more peril.

Those brave young forest defenders, forced into the woods as a thin green line against the chainsaws, should send their bail requests to the Sierra Club and their medical bills to the Wilderness Society. They can afford it.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3